The Malibu Decameron

In her recent book about the novel (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel[*]), Jane Smiley points out that while the writer gets to make the rules for his or her work, the reader has the option to read it or not, and is free to “object or disagree.” This critical pact has required novelists since Boccaccio to think about the best ways to lure the reader into reading (for it remains true, with few exceptions, that novelists want their books to be read). They experiment with ways of telling stories, and because some experiments are more fruitful than others, a collective wisdom eventually accrues about how to proceed.

The most influential theorist remains Henry James, but Smiley, who is always an original, lively, and fearless writer, introduces many ideas that invite discussion, or at least complicate her subsequent novel projects by ensuring they’ll be tested against her theories. In Thirteen Ways she talks about the novel’s origins with, among others, Boccaccio, whose Decameron was one of the earliest examples of the novelistic impulse, a collection of tales held together within a little frame explaining who was telling them and why; the germ of the form is this frame, and in the tales themselves, which, as she says in Thirteen Ways, bear “many of the hallmarks of the modern novel—moral relativity, everyday concerns, and uneasiness about, on the one hand, money, and on the other hand, God.”

In the Decameron, ten characters—three men and seven women—fleeing the plague in early Renaissance Florence pass the time in their rural retreat by each telling a story a day. The assembled hundred tales—in turn touching, misogynistic, cruel, or funny—would influence later writers of compendiums of stories from Chaucer to Smiley herself in her new novel Ten Days in the Hills.

Smiley is adventurous and analytical. Much of her work has been parody, or recasting earlier works in modern terms that illuminate both the original work and our own times; one might think of her version of “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” told from the point of view of the wife, or, most notably, A Thousand Acres, a King Lear set on an Iowa farm in the 1980s, told from the point of view of Goneril. Her novel Moo satirizes both the academic novel and midwestern academia. Her most fully successful work is probably the lovable novel Horse Heaven, where she writes with convincing authority from the points of view of horses and dogs.

In Ten Days in the Hills, evidently fascinated by Boccaccio’s Decameron, she begins by adopting the same formal structure: ten people at a house party, telling stories, albeit what Henry James called “concise anecdote” in the place of full-blown formal tales—little stories about gruesome murders they’ve read about, good Germans, a person named Stephanie Larsson’s progress in psychotherapy, the story of a putative Vermeer…. Like Boccaccio’s characters, Smiley’s group of people retire to escape something—in this case, news of the Iraq war. Many of the…

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